Review: The Wright Place: Frank Lloyd Wright’s $10,000 Home

Frank Lloyd Wright’s $10,000 Home:
History, Design, and Restoration of the Bach House

Robert J. Hartnett
Master Wings Publishing

Despite any fame suggested by the hideous portmanteau starchitect, few architects have ever been household names. For most people, buildings simply come to be, slapped together and raised up over weeks or months by fleets of construction workers. Everyone knows it all starts at the drawing table, but doubtless few everyday folks could identify a single modern architect. Jeanne Gang? Frank Gehry? Renzo Piano? Who they?

Then there’s Frank Lloyd Wright. While it’s unlikely you could strike up a conversation about FLW’s architectural philosophy at an average Ohio diner, someone might recognize not only his name but also what he did for a living. Having a fertile mind, incredible drive, a gift for persuasion, and a long life, Wright outlasted and out-famoused many of his mentors and contemporaries. He designed 1,000 or so buildings, 500 or so of which were actually built, with around 400 surviving to the present day. Even though his style changed over the decades, you know a Wright building when you see it.

Built in 1915, the Emil Bach House at 7415 North Sheridan Road is every square foot a Frank Lloyd Wright building, with its projecting roofs, boxy motif, and built-in furniture. It’s also the last of Wright’s Prairie School buildings. Architecture being an art form almost exclusively enjoyed and funded by the wealthy, the Bach House owes its existence to a scion of a successful Chicago brick-making company and his wife. Emil Bach was one of several brothers who ran the Bach Brick Company, Inc., which once occupied the area at 2647 Montrose Avenue today. Mr. Bach had breathing issues—perhaps all that brick dust got to him. Thus, he and his wife decided to build a home on Sheridan Road, allowing Emil to enjoy the fresh air of Rogers Park (considerably more bucolic in 1915), as well as a lovely view of the lake (now obscured by apartment buildings).

Nowadays, unless you’re obscenely well-to-do, it’s unlikely you could get Wright’s modern equivalent to build you a pretty lakeside home—good luck getting Koollhaas’ secretary to return your calls. Certainly not for the relative bargain of $10,000 in 1915—around $276,000 in 2022 money, give or take. But there were reasons for all that, and author Hartnett turns them up in his exceedingly brief but interesting book, Frank Lloyd Wright’s $10,000 Home.

Wright’s is a life writ large. No single biography could cover the scope of his brilliance and venturous approach to architecture, nor that of the bare few architects in history touched by actual genius. Fortunately, there are a number of deep dive books available addressing this or that building and the story and creator behind it. Larry Millett’s The Curve of the Arch: The Story of Louis Sullivan’s Owatonna Bank, for instance, which covers the first and greatest of Louis Sullivan’s jewel box banks, or the more recent Reconstructing the Garrick: Adler & Sullivan’s Lost Masterpiece, by architect John Vinci and others (full disclosure, I copy-edited the latter book, but by God, it’s worth getting). Through books like these we get not just the histories of the buildings and their architects but also the fascinating specifics about how a building comes to be, and how it interacts with its community and surroundings.

As for Frank Lloyd Wright’s $10,000 Home, it’s not really a deep dive so much as a pleasant wade through the story of the Rogers Park house. Hartnett turns up interesting tidbits about Wright’s approach and his work in general. For example, we learn that Wright didn’t care a whit about basements, declaring:

“…basements are damp and they’re for moles. People store things there and never use them.”

Weird as that sounds, it does allow Hartnett to address Wright’s preference for water tables, a more elegant way to divert water away from the home’s perimeter. Two photos of the deeply creepy basement also verify that Wright didn’t give a damn about making it pretty down there. We also learn that not a single Bach brick was used in the Bach House, because Wright didn’t like their reddish color, preferring to use cream-hued bricks from a firm in Ohio. By the way, spoiler alert: the house was quoted at $10,650, rather than a firm $10K.

Hartnett’s accounting of the various changes the house experienced over the years also raises some interesting points about renovation. An inglenook and a long bench were two notable examples of Wright’s signature very cool but also very uncomfortable-looking built-in furniture. Both pieces were eliminated at some point, then replaced during a later restoration. Likewise, several windows were removed and replaced with duplicates, and a walnut cabinet door turned out to be the only original piece of original walnut woodwork in the place. Moreover, a modern kitchen and bathroom were added in the 80s, but replaced during another 21st century restoration, thank God. Overall, the Bach House has seen a plenitude of changes, not all good, before achieving its final and more historically accurate form under the eyes of the last two owners, Jane Feerer and Jennifer Pritzker (cousin to the governor). And yet, upon consideration, it suggests a Ship of Theseus situation.

Yes, we are in the thick of architectural train-spotting, yes, we are. But Hartnett keeps it moving along with interesting bits of trivia and such like. Things get a little wobbly toward the end, perhaps because there’s only so much to share about a single house, no matter who built it. There are six blank pages, between pages 122 and 129, with a note saying they’re provided so readers can add their “own experiences and memories to the Bach House’s continuing story, linking the past to the future.” Assumedly, this has never happened, and never will happen. Find a better way to pad your printer spreads.

The book is clearly intended as gift shop merch, picked up by visitors and renters—you can rent the Bach House for the night or for special events, as the last chapter helpfully explains—to remember the day they wandered or slumbered in a genuine Frank Lloyd Wright. Bluntly, the book has the whiff of vanity project about it. Master Wings Publishing is a branch of Tawani Enterprises Inc., run by current owner Pritzker, who is repeatedly and noticeably praised for her efforts to restore the house (she also wrote the foreword). As well she should. But in this case, vanity doesn’t mean bad. Far from it. Frank Lloyd Wright’s $10,000 Home is a enjoyable and thorough foray into a minor work by a master architect.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s $10,000 Home is available in most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

© Jeremy Atherton, 2006
Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.